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From Middle English sotilte, from Old French sutilté, inherited from Latin subtīlitās, from subtīlis (subtle). Doublet of subtility.


  • IPA(key): /ˈsʌt(ə)lti/
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subtlety (countable and uncountable, plural subtleties)

  1. (uncountable) The quality of being subtle.
    1. (of things) The quality of being scarcely noticeable or difficult to discern.
      the subtlety of the Mona Lisa’s smile
      • 1964, Saul Bellow, Herzog, New York: Viking, pp. 248-249,[1]
        [] he had a lifetime of skill in interpreting his father’s gestures: those bent knees meant that something of great subtlety was about to be revealed.
    2. (of things) The quality of being done in a clever way that is not obvious or not direct; the quality of being carefully thought out.
      the subtlety of a writer’s analysis / of a singer’s phrasing
      Synonym: refinement
    3. (of people) The quality of being able to achieve one's aims through clever, delicate or indirect methods.
      With all his usual subtlety, he quietly fixed the problem before anyone else noticed it.
      Synonyms: discretion, finesse, savoir-faire
      • 1979, William Styron, Sophie’s Choice, New York: Random House, Chapter 3, p. 74,[2]
        European women often boss their men too, but with a beguiling subtlety unknown to most American females.
    4. (of people) The quality of being able to notice or understand things that are not obvious.
      Synonyms: acumen, perceptiveness, perspicacity
      • 1611, King James Version of the Bible, Proverbs 1.4,[3]
        To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.
      • 1770, Oliver Goldsmith, The Life of Henry St. John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke, London: T. Davies, p. 7,[4]
        his subtilty in thinking and reasoning were profound,
  2. (countable) An instance of being subtle, a subtle thing, especially a subtle argument or distinction.
    The subtleties of this overture are often overlooked.
    Synonyms: nicety, nuance
  3. (countable, historical) An ornate medieval illusion dish or table decoration, especially when made from one thing but crafted to look like another.
    At the king's coronation feast, several subtleties were served between main courses.
    • 1548, Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke, London: Richard Grafton, “The triumphaunt reigne of Kyng Henry the .VIII.,”[9]
      the seruice [] was sumpteous, with many subtleties, straunge deuises, with seuerall poses, and many deintie dishes.
  4. (uncountable, countable, archaic) The quality of being clever in surreptitious or deceitful behaviour; an act or argument that shows this quality.
    Synonyms: artifice, craftiness, cunning, deceitfulness, slyness, trickery
    • 1575, George Gascoigne, The Noble Arte of Venerie of Hunting, London: Christopher Barker, “Termes generall of the huntesman, in hunting of any chase,” p. 243,[10]
      When eyther Hare or Deare, or any other chase vseth subtleties to deceyue the houndes, we saye they crosse or double.
    • 1593, Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, London: William Ponsonby, Book 3, p. 181,[11]
      [She] resolued now with plainnesse to winne trust, which trust she might after deceyue with a greater subtletie.
    • 1611, King James Version of the Bible, 2 Corinthians 11.3,[12]
      But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
    • 1717, Alexander Pope, The Iliad of Homer, London: Bernard Lintott, Volume 3, Observations on the Tenth Book, p. 136,[13]
      [] the Spy was deceiv’d rather by the Art and Subtlety of Ulysses, than by his Falshood.
    • 1818, Jane Austen, Persuasion, in Northanger Abbey: and Persuasion, London: John Murray, Volume 4, Chapter 10, p. 220,[14]
      Mr. Elliot’s subtleties, in endeavouring to prevent [the marriage]
  5. (countable, obsolete) A trick that creates a false appearance.
    Synonyms: deception, illusion
  6. (uncountable, obsolete) The property of having a low density or thin consistency.
    • 1630, Thomas Johnson (translator/editor), A Treatise of the Plague [] Collected out of the workes of [] Ambrose Parey, London, Chapter 11, p. 33,[16]
      Therefore at Paris where naturally, and also through the aboundance of filth that is about the Citie, the Aire is darke and grosse, the pestilent Infection is lesse fierce and contagious then it is in Prouince, for the subtletie of the Aire stimulates or helps forward the Plague.
    • 1692, Robert Boyle, General Heads for the Natural History of a Country Great or Small Drawn Out for the Use of Travellers and Navigators, London: John Tailor and S. Hedford, p. 3,[17]
      About the Air is to be considered, its Temperature as to Heat, Dryness and Moisture, and the Measures of them, its Weight, Clearness, Refractive Power, its Subtilty or Grosness []
  7. (uncountable, obsolete) The property of being able to penetrate materials easily.
    Synonyms: penetrancy, piercingness


The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Wiktionary:Entry layout § Translations.